Break Chains

The National Utterances And Achievements Of Our First Century by John M Langston 1876

John_Mercer_LangstonThe National Utterances And Achievements Of Our First Century. An Oration By Prof. John Mercer Langston, L.L.D. Delivered At Portsmouth, Virginia, July 4th, 1876.

Mr. President Of The Banneker Lyceum And Fellow-citizens: I congratulate you upon the name which your association bears. In giving title to your association you honor one who largely unaided, by his own efforts distinguished himself as a scholar, while he made himself in no insignificant sense conspicuous as a philanthropist; certainly so far as a free and bold advocacy of freedom for his own race discovered his love for mankind.

Benjamin Banneker cultivated in his studies those matters of science which pertain to astronomical calculations; and so thorough and exact were his calculations, as they respected the different aspects of the planets, the motions of the sun and moon, their risings and settings, and the courses of the bodies of planetary systems, as to excite and command the commendation of Pitt, Fox, Wilberforce, and other eminent men of his time.

In 1791 Banneker sent to Thomas Jefferson, then President of the United States, a manuscript copy of his first almanac, enclosing it in a letter, in the closing portions of which he uses the following words: “Suffer me to recall to your mind that time, in which the arms of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful effort, in order to reduce you to a state of servitude; look back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed; reflect on that period in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preservation; you cannot but acknowledge that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven. This, sir, was a time when you clearly saw into the injustice of a state of slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. It was then that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publicly help forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’

“Here was a time in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare ; you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature; but, sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of mankind, and of His equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges which He hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract His mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence, so numerous a party of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

In a very few days after receiving this letter the President made the following reply: “Sir, I thank you sincerely for your letter, and the almanac it contained. Nobody wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men; and that the appearance of a want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that nobody wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising their condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances which cannot be neglected well admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Science at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.”

I make no apology for making this allusion, in this connection, to the man whose memory you honor in the phraseology “Banneker Lyceum;” nor for referring to his eminence as a scholar, and his bold advocacy in addressing even the author of the Declaration of American Independence, then President of the United States, in such words as to provoke the earnest and manly reply just presented. Let the colored American contemplate with pride this brief but interesting chapter which brings the name of the scholarly negro Banneker, in such juxtaposition to that of the eminent American statesman, Thomas Jefferson.

I also congratulate you upon this vast assembly, brought together under those instincts and promptings of patriotism, admiration and gratitude, with which from one end to the other of our country, from sea to sea, our fellow-countrymen meet this day, in hall, in church, like ourselves beneath the green foliage of God’s own temple, to call to mind and note the magnificent utterances, the splendid achievements and marvelous progress of our nation made within the first hundred years of its existence.

On this occasion, I may not tarry to dwell upon the utterances of individuals, however eminent and distinguished. It is only of those great national utterances, those judgments of the nation itself, so expressed in that majestic and thrilling voice of a’ great people, that its echoes never die, that I may speak on this interesting and memorable day; and of these in the briefest manner.

On the 4th day of July 1776, one hundred years ago, thirteen colonies with an insignificant population boldly made declaration of their independence of the British crown and their sovereignty as a free and independent nation, and to the maintenance of this declaration and their independence, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. The annals of one hundred years radiant with proofs of the sincerity of this pledge of our Fathers, attest how well, how manfully, how successfully, and triumphantly, our country has maintained herself among the great nations of the earth.

Perhaps the history of the world furnishes no document in which individual equality, the first powers of government; the conditions upon which a people may alter or abolish one government and institute another, laying its foundations and organizing its powers in such form and upon such principles as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness, with such clearness and force, as our own declaration, the masterpiece of American State papers. Upon its very words, could we separate them from the sentiments and doctrines which they embody we would dwell with a sort of superstitious pride and pleasure. But upon the doctrines, the principles, the sentiments they contain, we dwell justly with veneration and grateful approval. How the school boy, the clergyman, the statesman, all classes with equal pride and emotion repeat the words “when in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind, requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths self-evident : that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundations on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

How often these words have been quoted on occasions like this, how thoroughly they have become a part of every American’s very being, inhaled with the moral atmosphere of every house, no one of us can tell. Nor is it material. It is enough for us to know that as they shape in their influence every act of our nation so they influence and determine largely the conscientious conviction and judgment of every elector of our country through whose vote our institutions are supported and maintained.

On the 10th day of June, 1776, Congress appointed a committee to prepare a declaration, that these colonies are of right and ought to be, free and independent states.”

This committee consisted of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. As the declaration was presented by this committee in its original form, it contained among other charges against the King of Great Britain the following—” He has waged war against nations itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain, determined to keep open a market, where men should be bought and sold. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce, and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them : thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

This clause, formidable indeed in the charge presented, but far reaching and significant in favor of the abolition of slavery was stricken from the declaration, on the suggestion of the state of Georgia. The declaration, however, as a whole is none the less emphatic in favor of the inalienability of man’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and Garrison, Phillips, Smith, Sumner, and their associates, the great apostles of the American abolition movement did well to plead the cause of the slave, and to claim the equality of the rights of the negro before American law in the name of its principles and teachings.

With regard to the courage and heroism, which distinguished the American soldier of our revolutionary period, and the triumphs which attended our armies, I need not speak, ah are acquainted with these and to-day as we go back in memory to our-struggle at Lexington, at Bunker Hill, and to the surrender of Burgoyne, our souls are filled with gratitude that the God of battles brought victory to those arms wielded in a struggle for freedom, independence and free institutions.

Eight years of conflict, brought us a victory which settled forever our independence and sovereignty, no longer a dream, but a solemn, abiding reality.

I wish to bring to your attention and emphasize two things with regard to the articles of confederation, approved the 9th day of July, 1778, in the 3d year of the Independence of America. 1st. These articles are entitled articles of confederation and perpetual union between the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, &c, and in the concluding article thereof, the 2d clause contains these words, “and whereas it has pleased the great Governor of the world to incline the hearts of the Legislatures, we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union: know ye, that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to use given for that purpose, do, by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said articles of confederation and perpetual union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained; and we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the United States, in Congress assembled, on all questions which, by the said confederation, are submitted to them; and that the articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent; and, that the union be perpetual.

Although each State under these Articles retained its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right not expressly delegated to the United States in Congress assembled thus forming as the articles of confederation import, simply a confederacy under the style of the “United States of America,’ the union, formed thus was to be perpetual, lading forever, as is abundantly shown from the words of t.hia document already quoted.

The union of these articles, a compact of sovereign States, was to be perpetual. It was not long, however, before the sovereignty of the States was merged, under the Constitution of the United States, in the higher and grander sovereignty of the nation. And thus our Union was made more perfect and perpetual. Let it stand forever!

Concerning the 4th Article of these Articles there is a matter of history which must prove especially interesting to all of us, when, now, our constitutional law has been so amended as to tolerate no discrimination with regard to citizenship predicated upon complexion.

When this Article was under consideration a proposition was made to qualify the phrase “free inhabitants,” occurring therein, by the insertion of the word; “white,” so as to make it read “free while inhabitants,” etc. Upon due consideration, eleven States voting upon the proposition, it was lost—eight States voting against it, two States in favor of it, while the vote of one State was divided. Early thus in the history of our nation the fathers decided to allow no discrimination among our countrymen as to citizenship based upon complexional differences, and nowhere either in the Declaration of Independence, or in the Articles of Confederation is the word white used except in the latter, it is found in the following connection, in Article 9th, “The United States in Congress assembled shall have authority among other things, to agree upon the number of land forces, and to make requisitions from each State for its quota, in proportion to the number of while inhabitants in such State.”

Why the word white is used in this connection, I am at a loss to know. It was not certainly because of the color of citizens of African descent . It was certainly not because they were not patriotic, brave, and enduring soldiers. In the revolutionary struggles they early demonstrated their fidelity and courage. One of the four first Americans falling, in the Boston massacre of 1770, being a mulatto, Crispus Attucks, whose name is one famous in the annals of that struggle. This word white was certainly not used to discriminate against citizens of African descent prejudicially as to the matter of citizenship. For generally at this time, when emancipated, they became citizens and voters without qualification or condition in the States where they resided. The distinction made here then must have been in the interest of slavery, an institution which from the very first proved itself utterly at war with every interest of the people.

Occupying, as we do this day, a high moral plain from which we may retrospect our past, we can appreciate the ordinance of 1787, which, establishing a form of government for our Western territories, concludes with six Articles of compact between the original States and the people of the territories, the same to be unalterable, except by common consent.

The first secures entire religious freedom, the second, trial by jury, the writ of habeas corpus, together with other fundamental rights usually inserted in Bills of Eights; the third provides for the encouragement and support of schools, and enjoins good faith towards the Indians; the fourth places the new States to be formed out of the territory upon an equal footing with the old ones; the fifth authorizes the future division of the territory into not less than three nor more than five States, each to be admitted into the Union when it should contain 60,000 free inhabitants; and the sixth contains the celebrated anti-slavery proviso introduced by Jefferson, “That there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said States, other than in the punishment of crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Thousands of noble sons, inhabitants of the States formed of such territory, rejoice this day that no curse of slavery has blighted their toil—that no footsteps of the bondman ever pressed the pathway of their industry. The shouts of other millions, former slaves, uniting with those once their owners and masters, send back the echo of such rejoicing this day in a glad refrain of thanksgiving and joy, that no slave now breathes the air of our country.

Chief among the moral triumphs of our age and country stands that act of our nation which emancipates four million of bondsmen; and inducting them into the body-politic, throws over them the investiture of an equal and impartial citizenship.

All honor is duo him whose name is written first among the company of noble men, the chief work of whom, the glory of their endeavors, culminates in the emancipation of the American slave. All honor is due the great captain of our forces, who established through the sword, as the fixed law of our nation, the emancipation proclamation of the first day of January, 1863. Henceforth the names of Lincoln and Grant, are justly emblazoned in our history as the emancipator and defender of our enslaved race.

The Constitution of the United States, a document of rare, in many respects matchless, excellence, prior to its modification by the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments, is now certainly without parallel in the history of mankind, as an enunciation of organic law; and every American, whatever his political bias or party affiliations, must experience special pleasure in knowing that no other nation of ancient or modern times has been given, the genius or the heart to produce such a document, and to establish in accordance therewith a government which in its forms and results realizes so nearly our idea of that perfect government, the subjects of which, while they enjoy the amplest possible freedom, pursue their several occupations, assured of the largest protection to life, liberty and property.

As we read and study the great State papers of our nation— The Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Ordinance of 1787, and the Constitution of the United States—and consider the workings of the Government organized in accordance therewith, in none of its departments, discriminating against any of our citizens, native or naturalized, with regard to birthplace, nationality, complexion, or former condition of life, but inviting all to partake alike of the benefits and blessings of free institutions, our hearts swell with gratitude to that beneficent Dispenser of human affairs, who gave our fathers wisdom, courage, and success, and who has abundantly blessed their sons in national unity, prosperity and happiness:

Of the material greatness of our country—its development of the great industries which distinguish its progress and civilization, I can do little more than make a passing allusion. Did I tarry to name simply our achievements in steam navigation, shipbuilding, the building of railroads, the manufacture of railroad cars, improvements in all kinds of machinery, telegraphy, and printing, I would detain you beyond your patience and endurance. I content myself and trust I satisfy you by saying, the first century of our existence as a nation has witnessed such triumphs in art, science, and industry in our land as has not been vouchsafed in the history of mankind to any other people within such period.

In all departments of business—in banking, commerce, agriculture—we witness improvement of method, implement, and the use of power and skill.

In politics, legislation and general reform, our national triumphs have been splendid; not less so, however, in the various departments of industry.

Of our improvement in all those things that pertain to a well organized system of free common schools, supported by public tax, levied and collected by the general and cordial assent of property holders, I speak with pride. Generally our common school system is so valued, its good results so appreciated, that no considerations pecuniary or other would induce the people to consent to any reduction of taxes, or the doing of anything the tendency of which would be to curtail and destroy the influence of such system. We all value the free common school as at present organized as indispensable to the education and training of the youth of all classes. Many without academic, or collegiate instruction, if not fully, measurably fitted for the pursuit of business or professional walks of life enter thereupon directly from our common schools and achieve therein commendable success. Indeed, our common schools may be properly enough regarded as the college of the people. No tuition may here be collected; no incidental fees charged; and yet, an education which furnishes excellent mental discipline, considerable knowledge, general and various, together with sound moral training may be secured.

Of improvements in methods of instruction, buildings, furniture, apparatus, text-books, treatment of pupils, character of teachers, and modes of preparing teachers for their work, I can not speak in detail . Improvements in all these respects are abundant, transcending our most sanguine expectations, of the largest advantage and most satisfactory kind.

Contrasting the system and condition of public instruction in France, Holland, Prussia, Germany, Great Britain and other countries with those of the United States of America, J. W. Hoyt, Esq., one of the Commissioners of the Paris Universal Exposition of 1867, in his report on education, under the title United States of America, says:

“From the earliest settlement of this country by those brave men and women who landed on the rocks of Massachusetts Bay, no less imbued with the spirit of freedom and popular education than the love of God and liberty of conscience, the cause of education has been one of primary interest both to Colonial and Federal governments. A history of the sacrifices and toils by which were established and maintained the schoolhouses of the ante-revolutionary times of the Colonial period, and a summing up of the truly munificent contributions of the Federal and State authorities since the adoption of the Constitutional Government, to the great end of creating a citizenship worthy of our free institutions are sufficient to awaken the ambition and enthusiasm of the dullest soul.”

Continuing, he says, “All in all, the original provisions of the government for the education of the people are more liberal than those of any other; and in connection with the additions arising from regular taxation, and from appropriations made by the States themselves, present the most magnificent financial school basis of the world. The pride with which the American citizen regards this support of common-school instruction is amplified by contemplating the scarcely less abundant endowment by which individual wealth has built up the higher grades noticed under the head of Secondary Education.”

Upon the higher grades of education, the academies, colleges, universities and professional schools, I may not dwell. The special character, claims and achievements of such schools we all appreciate. Their growth within the past fifty years has been marked, and through their instrumentality education has received decided impulse and noteworthy educational advantages have been gained.

Fellow-citizens of Virginia, and by this appellation in this regenerated hour of American freedom I designate all classes and complexions, the class formerly masters, and that formerly slaves, I congratulate you upon the change in an educational point of view which has taken place in your own State during the past ten years. Instead of leaving your sons and daughters in ignorance, to a heritage of crime and degradation, you are establishing a common school system whose advantages and benefits will compensate in popular knowledge, wisdom, and virtue an hundred fold all labor, outlay and sacrifice connected therewith. To-day your schools, a double system, white and black, I trust the day is not distant when they will be one—a common school, stand open, and provision, if not yet ample and entirely satisfactory, has been made measurably for the accommodation of the children of your State. Your people are showing already a wise appreciation of the advantages shown their children in your schools. And I but voice the feeling of your fellow-citizens throughout the country when I bid you a hearty God-speed in your noble work in this behalf.

You may rest assured that in so far forth as any schools built and conducted in your State, upon northern liberality, shall hereafter need pecuniary assistance to support and maintain them in their special work, that assistance will not be wanting, when proper appeal is made for it . The people of the north, not more in New England than the great northwest, are deeply interested in the educational welfare of your humbler classes

But I must conclude. The progress of our nation during the past’ one hundred years, in all those things which concern national greatness and glory is truly wondrous. In social, moral, and industrial growth she has no superior among the great nations of the earth. In statesmanship, jurisprudence, literature, science, arts, and arms, she compares favorably with the foremost of these great nations.

If her achievements and progress have been so great in the past, we may contemplate with confidence and pride her advancement in the future. Remaining true to the lessons of freedom, equal rights, justice, humanity and religion taught us by the fathers, the wise men of our country, and the experience of the past, so fraught with warning and admonition, relying upon the God who has so signally blest her, our nation may hope to reach even a larger growth, to show a more splendid progress; to attain a future more beautiful and magnificent than anything which distinguishes the century which this day closes the first hundred years of our national life.

See also:
The Consequence of Bad Legal Precedent in American Legislation
Wide Spread And Growing Corruption In The Public Service Of The States And Nation
THE FIRST CENTURY OF THE REPUBLIC by Judge Isaac W Smith 1876
THE DESTINY OF THE REPUBLIC by Lewis W. Clark 1876 New Hampshire
THE SOURCE AND SECURITY OF AMERICAN FREEDOM AND PROGRESS by Courtlandt Parker 1876
THE GRAND MISSION OF AMERICA by Joseph H. Twitchell, July 4, 1876
A PRAYER FOR THE NATION by Rev. William Bacon Stevens July 4, 1876
WHAT HISTORY TEACHES US ABOUT AMERICAN DIPLOMACY Addressed in 1876
The Practical Advance Of Human Freedom Under The Trumpet Call Made In 1776 by Charles F Adams
Corruption In Politics and Society: Corrupters Of America! by John Hancock 1770
PATRIOT SONS OF PATRIOT SIRES by Rev. Samuel Francis Smith 1808-1895
Joseph Baldwin: Address 1892, to National Teachers Association in New York
THE COST OF POPULAR LIBERTY by Brooks Adams July 4th 1876
 

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